Learning service in South America

Aug 10, 2011

 Robin Bortner In the Amazon with Ecuadorian host family

In the Amazon with my Ecuadorian host family

by Robin Bortner

I came to understand service in the airport terminal in Quito, Ecuador, two months after I arrived to learn Spanish as an intern in a museum. I swallowed hard, determined not to cry as I prepared to go back home. 

I tried to summon all the reasons why I had initially thought I hated the city. 

  • I arrived jetlagged and dizzy from the altitude. 
  • Five years of Spanish classes had not, in fact, granted me charming conversational skills. How on earth was I to complete my internship responsibilities as a museum tour guide?
  • Without the flair for language I’d always taken for granted, I became a mute observer of a world that was not my own. 
  • Every day on my commute, I was sure I felt the grime of the city bus seep into my skin while the noise saturated my ears. 
  • People’s eyes refused to stray from me—this tall, pale red-headed female with strange clothes.

Yet here I was, on my way home, crying as the plane climbed over the mountains. The bus had become no less noisy and the stares no less invasive; what had changed was me. I had removed the lens of judgment and focused on what I loved instead. My home city might be cleaner and quieter, but it didn’t have sidewalk fruit sellers, startling mountain vistas, stunning woven textiles, romantic old-world plazas and the hundred other things I discovered I loved. 

I had been guided to this discovery by my host family. Somehow, their open hearts had altered my perceptions of the landscape around me. Their giving of unreserved access to their home, their lives and their city without expectation of return allowed me, in turn, to give of myself.

Transformation—like the kind I learned in Quito—is the goal of service. We hope to transform the lives of those we touch. We do so without conditions or expectation. We serve until we forget we’re serving. The results cannot always be charted on a spreadsheet or calculated in percentages of change … but we know they’re real.


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